Boston's Success Could Be Lesson for D.C. Schools
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
BOSTON -- The sprawling old urban high school in a diverse middle-class neighborhood is so clean and quiet, it has the feel of an empty summer day. Eleventh-graders in one class work silently on algebra as a teacher roams, whispering pointers to individuals. Outside, the yellow brick halls are graffiti-free. And for the first time in a decade, the bathrooms are unlocked all day. In fact, the only remaining indicator of the Hyde Park school's urban existence is a metal detector at the front door.
This is the gleaming new face of the Boston public school system. Once so overwrought with racial conflict that it was deemed broken beyond repair, it is now held up as a model of urban school reform.
In the past 10 years, the Boston schools, led by the same superintendent, have seen a steady upward trajectory of performance. State and national tests show that while reading gains have been slower, mirroring national trends, math performance has been extraordinary. Seventy percent of 10th-graders passed math last year, compared with 25 percent in 1998. During the same time period, proficiency in language arts among fourth-graders went from 4 percent to 25 percent. Eighth-grade math performance has gone from 11 percent proficient in 1998 to 17 percent proficient today.
And 76 percent of the Class of 2004 -- the most recent tally -- pursued postsecondary education or training, up seven percentage points from the Class of 2000.
Officials in Boston have achieved these gains with a school district that is remarkably similar to that of Washington, D.C., in terms of minority demographics, poverty levels and overall budget. Few would dispute, however, that today the two districts are a universe apart in quality of instruction, leadership stability and achievement.
As urban schools nationally demonstrate growth in both state-mandated student assessments and administrative operations, Washington has consistently hovered at the bottom of the pack, showing some modest gains only last year, and has yet to turn the corner on stability. Whereas Boston's chief school officer, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, has been in place for a decade, Washington's superintendent, Clifford B. Janey, came to the job 18 months ago and is the fifth person to run the District's schools in 10 years.
Payzant walked into a similar and troubled situation in 1995. Court-ordered busing in the mid-1970s, and the sometimes violent resistance to it, had turned a decent operation into one of the most chaotic in the nation. There was no coherent curriculum, and there were no published standards for students or teachers. Financial and personnel accounting were archaic. And there were disproportionate funding allocations for special-needs kids. Superintendents turned over regularly after wrestling with a contentious and divisive school board.
Shortly before Payzant arrived, the city voted to shift from a fractious elected board of education to a board appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino -- a factor many say has been key to the superintendent's success. Another was that he toughed it out.
"There is routinely a lot of turnover in urban school districts. From the perspective of the teachers, each year brings a new set of goals, new programs, a new set of expectations. . . . And they haven't even begun to understand last year's plan," said Payzant, 65, who is widely credited with the turnaround and who is retiring in June. "From Day One here, you have to have a consistent plan and everyone on the same page."
Through partnerships with the city government, local universities and outside funders, the system has plowed money into developing standards, training teachers and principals, and splitting mega-high schools into learning boutiques.
Janey said in a interview that, like other urban administrators, he has looked to Boston (where he once worked) for "constructive guidance" as he struggles to bolster Washington's abysmal record. He has adapted Boston's standards in reading, language arts and math for the District and he has switched Washington to the Massachusetts assessment model, a new testing system that was administered for the first time last month.
Still, potential benefactors and educators are watching nervously, many privately fretting that although he is on the right track, Janey is moving too slowly. Some fault him for not immediately embracing outside financial contributors and foundations interested in providing the kind of extra money that was critical for Boston's progress.